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Retro Review: THE WAX MASK (1997)

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THE WAX MASK
(Italy/France - 1997; US release 2000)

Directed by Sergio Stivaletti. Written by Lucio Fulci and Daniele Stroppa. Cast: Robert Hossein, Romina Mondello, Riccardo Serventi Longhi, Gabriella Giorgelli, Aldo Massasso, Umberto Balli, Valery Valmond, Gianni Franco, Antonello Murru, Daniele Auber, Massimo Vanni, Omero Capanna, Goffredo Unger. (Unrated, 98 mins)

1997's THE WAX MASK began life as a heavily-hyped collaboration between Italian horror legends Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, the latter ailing and inactive since 1991's little-seen DOOR TO SILENCE, and far removed from his furiously prolific 1979-1984 glory days that gave us the likes of ZOMBIE, CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, and THE BEYOND among others. After scrapping plans to make a new version of THE MUMMY, producer Argento and director Fulci settled on THE WAX MASK, a new take on the 1953 classic HOUSE OF WAX, itself a remake of 1933's MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, with some elements of Gaston Leroux's short story "The Waxworks Museum." The writing process and pre-production--delayed while Argento finished THE STENDHAL SYNDROME--brought numerous disagreements, with Fulci unexpectedly wanting to go for atmosphere, while Argento wanted more splatter, since that's what established Fulci's fame, but Fulci's already precarious health took another downturn and before filming could even begin, the Godfather of Gore died on March 13, 1996 of complications from his long battle with diabetes. With the script already written, Argento pressed forward as a tribute to Maestro Fulci, assigning directing duties to renowned makeup effects wizard Sergio Stivaletti, whose trailblazing work was a highlight of latter-day Italian horror classics like Argento's PHENOMENA, Lamberto Bava's DEMONS and DEMONS 2, and Michele Soavi's THE CHURCH, THE SECT, and CEMETERY MAN. Making his directing debut, Stivaletti was given some wide latitude by Argento to tailor the project to his own vision. As a result, he significantly reworked Fulci's initial script--written with Daniele Stroppa, with some uncredited contributions from Argento--and the end result is a bizarre hodgepodge of giallo, gothic horror, and steampunk, almost like HOUSE OF WAX and Mario Bava's BARON BLOOD mashed up with a looney tunes third act that veers unexpectedly into sci-fi territory.







It's not very good, but it's better than anything else Fulci made after 1988 and it's better than Argento's next project, his career nadir THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, for which THE WAX MASK occasionally feels like a stylistic test run. In Paris in 1900, a little girl witnesses a black-clad figure murder her parents, with police determining that her father's heart was ripped out with a claw-like instrument. Cut to Rome in 1912, and the girl has grown up into Sonia (Romina Mondello, later seen as Rachel McAdams' obnoxious friend in Terrence Malick's TO THE WONDER), who went to live with her blind Aunt Francesca (Gabriella Giorgielli) after being orphaned. Shy Sonia gets a job as a costume designer at a new wax museum operated by Boris Volkoff (Robert Hossein), whose villainy should be obvious the moment you hear that he's named "Boris Volkoff," and has not one but two super-creepy assistants (Umberto Balli, Antonello Murru). The wax museum has made news before it's even opened, as a local man took a bet that he could spend the night in it and ended up dying of a fright-induced heart attack over something he saw (that's the plot of the Leroux short story). Volkoff is very protective of his exhibits and refuses to allow them to be photographed, and while a pestering reporter (Riccado Serventi Longhi) investigates the local man's death while also trying to make time with Sonia, the body count increases along with the number of Volkoff's exhibits, as a black-clad figure in a hat murders various people--mostly prostitutes from a nearby brothel--and transforms their corpses into new wax museum figures.


Anyone who's seen MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM and HOUSE OF WAX knows who's responsible, especially once a new exhibit echoes the Paris 1900 murder scene, triggering traumatic memories for Sonia (Volkoff doesn't initially know who he is) while attracting the attention of French detective Lanvin (Aldo Massasso), who's been obsessively chasing clues for the last 12 years and is especially interested in Volkoff's Paris 1900 exhibit since it includes details of the murder scene that were never made public. It's at about this point where Stivaletti steers THE WAX MASK to Crazytown in ways that are best discovered by going in cold, but even then, it still won't make a whole lot of sense. Veteran French actor/director and RIFIFI co-star Hossein--whose career dates back to 1948 and is still working today at 91--is appropriately sinister without hamming it up, though one wishes he would cut loose a little more, especially considering how batshit things get by the end.


Then again, it's really difficult to judge anyone's performance in this if you watch the English dub, which is absolutely atrocious, filled with florid line readings like Balli's character telling Sonia about his childhood abuse: "My father beat me until I bled...my skin carries the scars and my heart carries the hate which I shall always bear." Though venerable dubbing stalwarts like Carolynn de Fonseca and Ted Rusoff are briefly heard voicing some minor characters, most of that old gang had died or moved on by this point, leaving relative amateurs to do much of the heavy lifting, and anyone who watches enough of these Eurocult movies will instantly hear that the dubs on these later Italian genre titles just don't have the charm, the chops, or any sense of quality control. While there is some striking production design and some eye-popping colors, the entire film has a television feel to it, starting with the video-burned title and some stagy interiors. The climactic fire at the wax museum tries to emulate the exteriors of the witch houses burning at the end of Argento's SUSPIRIA and INFERNO, but Stivaletti can't pull it off with primitive CGI that already looked dated even by late '90s standards. THE WAX MASK opened in Italy in April 1997, just over a year after Fulci's death (he gets a dedication at beginning of the opening credits, which is a nice touch). As expected, it skipped US theaters and went straight-to-DVD courtesy of Image Entertainment in September 2000 in a non-anamorphic, early-days-of-DVD transfer that left much to be desired. While the dubious One-7 Movies released it on Blu-ray in 2016, Severin's new extras-packed Blu-ray set (because physical media is dead) is a huge improvement if you've only seen the Image DVD. Plus it offers an Italian track with English subtitles, though Hossein spoke French on set and is still dubbed in Italian, and everyone else speaking Italian sounds dubbed as well.



Actual shot from a film released in 1997


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